Thinking Algorithmically: From Cold War Computer Science to the Socialist Information Culture

AHP readers may be interested in a recent piece in the April issue of Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences:

“Thinking Algorithmically: From Cold War Computer Science to the Socialist Information Culture,” by Ksenia Tatarchenko. Abstract:

Cold War competition shaped the process of computerization in both East and West during the second half of the twentieth century. This article combines insights from Science and Technology Studies, which brought the analysis of Cold War technopolitics beyond the context of the nation-state, with approaches from Critical Algorithm Studies, to question the algorithm’s role in the global “computer revolution.” It traces the algorithm’s trajectory across several geographical, political, and discursive spaces to argue that its mutable cultural valences made the algorithm a universalizing attribute for representing human-machine interactions across the ideological divide. It shows that discourses about the human capacity to devise algorithms, a practice central to computer programming, became a space for negotiating different versions of modern subjectivity. This article focuses on two related episodes to demonstrate how the notion of “algorithmic thinking” became explicitly associated with a range of politicized agendas, each claiming the algorithm’s power. On one hand, the coupling of “algorithm” and “thinking” was used to describe a naturalized cognitive capacity shared among the members of the international scientific community and projected backward to the medieval scholar Al-Khwarizmi. On the other hand, the universal spread of “algorithmic thinking” became the educational goal of a late Soviet computer literacy campaign under the slogan of “Programming, the Second Literacy,” a metaphor and a political vision conceived to bring about the Socialist “Information Age.”

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.